Jessica Jackley and Reza Aslan are exploring what it means to live in an interfaith family.
The first week of February is Interfaith Harmony Week. Given the heightened friction between religious groups, this celebration of interfaith harmony is crucial. Each year, religious leaders engage in a dialogue based on two common fundamental Commandments; Love of God, and Love of Neighbor.
Jessica Jackley is best known for her role as a co-founder of Kiva.org. Kiva is the first peer-to-peer microlending platform. Anyone who has an internet connection and a credit card or PayPal account, you can go to Kiva.org, browse the profiles of entrepreneurs who need a small loan. These loans are often just a few hundred dollars. You can chip in. You can lend $25 toward that loan need. Over time you get repaid. Since Kiva.org launched a little more than 12 years ago, the site has facilitated over $1 billion in loans.
Millions of people in developing countries run microenterprises, from a fisher, to a dressmaker, to someone running a kiosk in a small village. For those entrepreneurs, microloans can be an important source of capital to help them to grow and sustain their businesses.
“It’s not as if a lot of folks don’t know how to lift themselves out of poverty,” Jessica explains. “They just don’t have access to the right resources to do so.”
A Strained Relationship with Poverty and Business
“I’d always had a fascination, and a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the idea of poverty and the poor, as it was presented to me by a lot of well-intentioned organizations,” Jessica says. Nonprofits, NGOs, and people who came to her church painted a picture of sadness, hopelessness, and desperation. These stories made Jessica feel guilty, shameful and panicked.
“The role that I was supposed to play was to respond by giving money,” Jessica describes, “letting these organizations go do ‘the real work.’ And then they’d come back and ask for more.
“That pattern of hearing the sad story, respond by feeling awful and freaked out, and then reaching into my pocket to give whatever spare change I had so that I could go on with my life…that wasn’t a cycle that I enjoyed. Unfortunately, it made me feel distanced from people who are living in poverty. It very much otherized them. So, this sort of separation happened early on in my life.”
When Jessica attended college, she studied philosophy, poetry, and political science. She avoided business classes. “I thought ‘business is bad. Business is about taking, and I want to be one of the givers’…I even thought, ‘entrepreneurs are the worst. They’re the gain leaders for starting businesses.’”
In a moment of serendipity, Jessica’s first job after college was as a temporary employee at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “I felt like I was sleeping with the enemy,” she jokes. However, she quickly realized that she was surrounded by people who wanted to use the power of business to solve the problems that mattered to her.
In the Fall of 2003, Dr. Muhammad Yunus gave a guest lecture on campus. Dr. Yunus pioneered the idea of microloans. “It was this real ah-ha moment for me,” Jessica explains. “It shifted things. He talked about the poor in a way that didn’t make me feel terrible. It didn’t feel like there was an agenda to have me play this very limited and particular role in this story.”
“It made me think that I could begin my great work in the world the way he had, by sitting down with people and listening to them very carefully.” Jessica reached out to several people, including Brian Lennon, who at the time was running Village Enterprise. Brian gave Jessica the opportunity to come to East Africa and to learn from local entrepreneurs.
Village Enterprise provided small grants to people in poverty. Jessica saw first-hand how small amounts of capital could make a big difference. Many of the people who had received grants were ready to start and grow a business, but they needed microloans.
Jessica returned to the US to share her idea of giving microcredit loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. She spent many months shopping the idea and gaining feedback. She points to this time as her one small regret. “I took too long waiting for the world to give me permission,” she says. Finally, she partnered with co-founder Matt Flannery, built a website, and returned to East Africa to profile entrepreneurs. In April 2005, Kiva made it’s first seven loans for a total of $3,500. By September of that year, all the loans were repaid. Kiva.org was on its way.
By 2010, Jessica left Kiva.org to launch a new company, ProFounder. ProFounder was a crowdfunding platform for small businesses in the US to raise investment capital. The company folded after a little more than two years. Jessica moved to the Collaborative Fund where she remains a Venture Advisor. Today, she is a Social Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business.
The Role of Faith in Jessica Jackley’s Journey
Recently, Jessica has been speaking out more on the role that her religious belief system has had on your life. “Some of the concepts, principles, and the practices that were embedded in me at an early age have allowed me to pursue the things that I believe in…I think of entrepreneurship as, you dream things up, you imagine them, and then you make that real. It’s very much a faith-building exercise.”
“I have always felt like my life was tied to something bigger than me. I’ve always felt connected to a higher power.”
However, Jessica worries a little about talking about her faith. “It can alienate some people,” she says. Nonetheless, when she looks back at her work with Kiva.org, she says, “I believe I was called to do that.”
Rather than practicing religion as an exclusive system, Jessica and her husband, Reza Aslan, practice religious inclusion. Reza is a practicing Muslim. He is also a writer whose books include God: A Human History, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization.
“We have an interfaith marriage and an interfaith family,” Jessica describes. They try to expose their children to a breadth of religious beliefs. “We try to do world religions 101 at home. Our little nickname for that is Home Church.” Jessica and Reza also try to instill a depth of spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and community.
Jessica admits that they don’t have their interfaith practice perfect yet. “We’re learning as we go,” she says. Jessica and Reza are documenting what they are learning on their interfaith journey, hoping to be helpful to other interfaith families.
Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Jessica Jackley
Social Entrepreneurship Resources:
- Jessica Jackley: http://www.jessicajackley.com
- Jessica Jackley on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jessicajackley
- World Interfaith Harmony Week: http://www.un.org/en/events/interfaithharmonyweek
- Kiva: http://www.kiva.org
- Village Enterprise: http://villageenterprise.org
- Reza Aslan: http://rezaaslan.com
- Book: Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration from Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most with the Least: http://amzn.to/2GEi4dp
- Book: God: A Human History: http://amzn.to/2nxXC5f
- Book: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth: http://amzn.to/2EvcVUs
- Book: Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization: http://amzn.to/2FAjXqh
- Book: Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs: https://tonyloyd.com/book